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Students have always needed to choose between a career in the trades or a degree. But they shouldn’t have to make that decision. Students should be able to earn a degree while gaining the relevant skills they need to enter the workforce. As higher ed begins to bridge this gap, it’s critical that both higher ed and industry speak the same language when it comes to a potential employee’s value and skills. In this interview, Jeff Harmon discusses the work Thomas Edison State University is doing to translate these skills to employers, how prior learning assessments come into play, and how institutions can begin to bridge this gap between the workforce and higher ed.
Jeff Harmon (JH): I believe there are two primary challenges. The first is the legacy decision that individuals have to make about whether to go into a vocational or trade career, or pursue a higher education credential. In the past, that has been presented as a fork in the road. Part of the problem is that it limits the number of open doors along an individual’s lifelong career pathway. If they decide they no longer want to be an electrician for example—or as some of our partners in the construction trades have told us: “You can only do construction for so many years”—employees may find their options limited, and perhaps without the necessary credentials to expand, accelerate or advance their career. That’s what Thomas Edison State University is trying to tackle directly by removing the need to choose one path or another and intertwining vocational education, trade education, apprenticeship and higher education.
The second challenge is really about the recognition of learning. Employer-based training programs often teach individual skills relative to a particular job, but those skills do not necessarily come across in the jargon that higher education is accustomed to hearing. For example, skills such as critical thinking and information literacy are common parlance for higher education. In employer-based training they may, and often do, use other terms. While employers may be teaching those skills, it doesn’t always translate easily. That’s where Thomas Edison plays a major role. Our team is adept at translating employer-based learning into post-secondary academic curriculum. Typically, employer-based learning doesn’t have a big label that says, “This is the critical thinking outcome”, or “In this lesson, you will learn about information literacy.” Lessons are usually oriented around employer needs, not higher education cornerstones. They are learning the same skills that higher education students are; the skills are just presented differently.
We send in a team of subject matter experts who have been trained to tease out those college-level skills, abilities, assessments, and to understand what learning is actually happening. We then translate those into college credits.
JH: Thomas Edison has been doing this work for the last five, ten, 15, 20, 30 years. We were founded as a degree aggregator, offering no courses but bringing together learning that’s occurred in different places. Students had taken a couple of community college courses, a couple of four-year school courses. They’ve gone through different job training programs. Maybe they learned a skill on their own. They don’t have a degree, but they have amassed all of this learning. So, we began by aggregating all of it to form a degree pathway. Then we started offering our own online courses. Now, what we’re really integrating online learning, testing, plus all of these different transfer credit options, workplace training recognition for credit, etc.
We’re integrating all of that based on the common denominator of outcomes assessment. We’re looking at the skills that students are learning and how they are demonstrating them.
You’re seeing a few more institutions, probably a handful, engaging in deep and rigorous Prior Learning Assessment. The reason why you don’t see it everywhere is that it’s expensive, and it’s not necessarily contributing to the bottom line of any institution. This is something fascinating about Thomas Edison and really about any institution that engages in PLA: for every credit that we assess, that’s one fewer credit that we offer and that we take in revenue for. So, it is not a financially sustainable model for most institutions. Thomas Edison on average, every year, awards around 300,000 credits for Prior Learning Assessment.
When we evaluate a workplace training program, it’s usually good for five years. Anyone who has taken the training, and can demonstrate it with documentation, earns those credits. So, the average student using a Prior Learning Assessment with Thomas Edison is awarded around 35 credits, at a savings of about $14,000. It takes a very special type of institution to make that commitment, to say, we know that we are not going to earn significant revenue on a per student basis with this model.
Our mission is to provide education through flexible collegiate learning and assessment opportunities. Our mission is to help students complete that degree.
JH: The first piece is that this is really the Thomas Edison model. And it has been since our founding. Our design was built on an aggregator model and has evolved that into integration. It’s not like we were an online institution offering 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree, and you could only transfer in 12 or 24, and then we built Prior Learning Assessment design model. We didn’t have to pivot or shift or anything. All decisions made around operations, finance, staffing, human resources have been built around that model.
Our assessment of student learning is robust because they’re transferring in so much more credit than usual, because they are earning credit for myriad training experiences or apprenticeships. We have fewer opportunities to engage with them, so we have to assess them more. And we run a pretty lean ship, so we’re all very busy. And we don’t have any sports teams. We have a handful of buildings in Trenton, where we base our operations, but there are no classrooms, except for our Accelerated Nursing Program, which does have an on-campus presence. So, there’s savings for sure. And all of that factors into the financial model and its viability in light of the reduction in credits each student might be taking with us directly.
JH: We have traditional admissions, academic advising, financial aid and registration services, of course. However, they’re very unique given the flexibility Thomas Edison brings to the table. Our advising teams are what I would call curricular artists. These are degree planning and credit aggregation experts. The advisors and our academic evaluation teams are receiving transcripts from multiple community colleges, four-year schools, workplace training program documentation, CLEP examination data, AP test data and so much more. They’re taking in all of these streams of information about what learning an individual has accomplished and evaluating it against a specified program of study that the individual has selected to figure out the optimal route to a degree. It is a very manual process. We have not figured out how to get AI to do that work yet.
Our courses are designed to be very interactive and adult-focused, so the integration between the content in our online courses and industry needs is very prevalent. We design practical courses, so students learn and can apply those concepts immediately to whatever job setting they may be in.
JH: We’re now part of a national conversation with a couple of other prior learning-focused institutions interested in discussing reciprocity for some of our different Prior Learning Assessment tools. Thomas Edison was one of the founders of the Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency. It includes, I think, five other institutions from our geographic area, where we have reciprocity with our Prior Learning Assessments. The national conversation we are engaged in might focus on how to expand that reciprocity.
The federal government just launched a large grant to create more apprenticeship training programs. The New Jersey Department of Labor also issued a grant to stimulate the development of more local, New Jersey-based apprenticeship training programs and yet another to support the evaluation of apprenticeship training to college credit. The signals out there are very clear: non-traditional learning is very real and very present and must be integrated with higher education.
To provide a conceptual model: what we’re doing with our apprenticeship partners is building a roadmap to an associate’s degree, where Thomas Edison has evaluated the apprenticeship. Let’s say we offer 32 credits for it, we’ve aligned that with one, or two, of our associate’s degree. So, the day they become, say, a journeyman or a wireman, is the day they receive their associate’s degree as well. The roadmap has students engaging in an apprenticeship and completing college courses to fill in any degree-pathway gaps. That individual has been working all along, remains employed, and because of the cost savings of this integrated approach, they don’t have the debt that traditional higher ed completers have. They’re in a viable career pathway, and they have a higher education degree. They have many more options than a single path would provide alone. All of those pathways have to converge between vocational education and higher education; otherwise, they’re going to continue to move further and further apart.
JH: I would just say that once an institution commits to recognizing college-level learning wherever and however it occurs, it is a transformational point in that institution’s life cycle. That is the point at which they have committed to the idea that learning can and does occur outside the traditional classroom, whether it’s brick-and-mortar or even online.
That commitment is in true service of degree-seekers, because people take many different pathways through life. I believe the convergence of these traditionally separate educational pathways is necessary and critical to expanding an educated, and employable, society.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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